Putin’s Goal: Prove NATO’s Dead

After years of provoking Western powers, Vladimir Putin finally crossed someone who was willing to stand up to an increasingly imperialistic Russia when Turkey shot down a Russian jet that had violated its airspace. It is in many way fitting that the man with the strength to act was President Recep Erdogan who is emulating the Putin model at home. Facing term limits as Prime Minister, Erdogan shifted to the Presidency, which was previously a ceremonial role, and has been moving powers to that office. As such, he remains the de facto leader of the country as evidenced by the fact he, and not the PM, is the person Putin and President Obama interact with during this and other crises. As with Putin in Russia, in Turkey, the powers increasingly are endowed to the man not the office. Just as Putin has ramped nationalistic rhetoric the past decade to consolidate public opinion, Erdogan has let religion creep into a government that has been proudly secular to secure support. In Erdogan, Putin has a worthy and like-minded adversary.

While some of his actions have been unseemly, the fact is Erdogan is an ally in NATO with Turkey an indispensable nation in the Middle East that on balance is a positive influence. That raises the stakes of this incident severely, and a NATO power has not shot down a Russian plane since 1952. With Russian and American planes flying over limited airspace, the risk of accident or unintended escalation is great, and with our nuclear arsenals, the cost of a worst case scenario is unimaginable. Given the mutual defense clause (Article 5), a Turkey-Russia skirmish is equally dangerous.

Now, I do not ascribe to the view that this incident could be the precipice of a world war, despite the fact World War I was beget by a minor incident. Irrespective of constant underestimation by some on the left (who seem to have a real penchant for underestimating threats, mind you), Putin is not an oafish brute, seeking to use hard power everywhere. He is a strategic thinker who uses hard power only when necessary. A direct Turkish-Russian war is in no one’s interest. His goal is a different one entirely with long-lasting geopolitical implications: to prove what we secretly fear to be true, that NATO is dead.

NATO enlargement has been a key policy priority for years, and it is a wise policy assuming two conditions are met. First, the new country’s principles and policies are in-line with the organization’s goals and values (one does not typically allow enemies into an alliance). That condition has largely been met during enlargement, and if anything the former Soviet States who have been the focus of enlargement more forcefully support a united Europe than existing ones. Second, member nations must have the same willingness to provide for the common defense of new members as existing ones, for a failure to defend any nation would undermine the basic fabric of the alliance. If NATO members are unwilling to fight on behalf of Country X, they should not accept Country X into the alliance. This is the condition that Putin is wisely testing. Invading Turkish airspace is not intended to provoke Turkey; it is a test of NATO’s resolve. We must calibrate our response accordingly.

For months, Putin has been provoking the West from buzzing U.S. ships to sending submarines near Swedish waters. Since launching airstrikes in Syria, Russia has violated Turkish airspace several times, and after repeated warnings, Turkey shot down an unmanned drone last month. It must also be noted that the fact Russia is bombing near the Turkish border is your evidence he isn’t focused on defeating ISIS as they do not control that territory. He is bombing moderate rebels to help boost Assad’s grip on power. Putin does want to eradicate ISIS eventually as that’s required to help Assad, but his mission is to roll back all rebel groups and is currently focused on moderate rebels to ensure there is no credible alternative to Assad, or an Assad-like crony. Of course, some of these rebel groups, including the Turkmen, are supported by Turkey, only antagonizing Russian-Turkish relations further.

It is from this perspective that Erdogan’s decision to down a Russian jet must be viewed. Russia has ignored repeated warnings about entering your airspace and is killing the very rebel groups you have been helping. It’s an exasperating situation that can fairly be seen as an act of war. So when a Russian plane entered Turkey, even if it was for less than 30 seconds, Erdogan felt compelled and was entirely justified in acting. To be clear, Erdogan is completely in the right. That said, I think Erdogan likely made a strategic error here. It is one thing to shoot down an unmanned drone; it is another to shoot down a jet, which led to the death of the pilot and a marine. The fact the Russian plane appears to have been shot down over Syrian territory also makes the decision even more questionable.

If anything, this incident has given Putin cover to intensify bombing against the pro-Turkey rebels, and he will likely deter tourism (Turkey has a mock-Kremlin so many Russians visit it) and other joint economic projects. Shooting down a Russian jet also increases the tail-risk of the situation escalating beyond anyone’s controls.

Is a 17 second violation enough to merit being shot down? The slippery slope argument is powerful here, if not 17 seconds, is 1 minute enough, 5 minutes? Further, the history of appeasing strongmen in the hopes their thirst for expansion is satiated is disastrous, and a violation of airspace is a violation no matter how long it lasts. That said, my reaction given the brevity of the incident would have been to give Putin just one more mulligan, have scrambled jets but not shot, come out publicly with the information a Russian jet violated Turkish air space, publicly vow to shoot down any jet that enters the air space going forward, and proactively offer coordination to avoid a similar incident (an offer which Putin would likely ignore). Should a jet violate the airspace after Tuesday, I would then shoot it down without hesitation. This policy to me would not fall into the appeasement camp, but be a final proverbial warning shot that I would then act upon if necessary (unlike certain people who erase their red lines).

We are now in a dangerous situation, one Putin precisely wants to be in. What if he violates Turkish airspace again? Erdogan would have to act again, but does that just result in further escalation from Putin? We also know that Europe, France in particular, sees Putin as an essential partner in Syria. Thanks to years of dithering on our part, Putin has been able to insert Russia as an integral player in a political solution. He and Iran continue to prop Assad up, and unless we are willing to put in our ground troops and risk direct conflict, they will have to acquiesce to any political transition. Putin is using Syria to gain leverage in his real area of territorial ambitions: Europe. Therefore, our response to his aggression needs to be centered in Eastern Europe.

Putin is fully aware Europe wants him involved as a partner in the fight against ISIS, and as such, he has us over a barrel. While Europe seems willing to continue the existing sanctions against Russia over his invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, they are unlikely to support a significant ratcheting of pressure for fear that will preclude him from cooperating on the Assad question. Putin has the ability to keep provoking with little if any ramification. As such, he will continue poking to find the weak underbelly of NATO to exploit it.

In all likelihood, NATO members urged Erdogan to soften just as we urged France not to invoke Article 5 after Paris, which is shameful. Does anyone really think Italy is willing to face off with Russia over Turkey? NATO membership has devolved into a two-tier system: nations whom we would defend no matter what, and nations who we would defend depending on the aggressor. Now, Turkey is such a critical player in the Middle East, it may be a core member, but this flare-up will only serve to increase the tensions between the Russia hawks and doves in NATO. This could be a prelude to a stiffer test of NATO’s resolve.

Ultimately, there is no strategic reason for Putin to war with Turkey, but there are NATO members that should be worried. In particular, I have concerns about Estonia, which has a 25% Russian-speaking population; remember, Putin used supposed discrimination against Russian-speakers to explain his annexation of Crimea. He also exploited this population to foment an “internal” resistance in East Ukraine that has totally crippled the nation. Estonia is in the process of fencing its Russian border over this very fear. The appearance of an internal rebellion is preferable for Putin as it would make it easier for some NATO members to say Article 5 does not apply (it must be an external aggressor). With its large Russian population, Latvia too is a potential target.

Estonia is a country of 1 million, and Western Europe is uninterested in a direct confrontation with a nuclear power, especially given the pressing problems in Syria. Turkey was the first attack on NATO, and the Baltic States are the obvious next target. While these are small nations, their defense is critical. Once it appears Article 5 does not apply to a member, how can we know what members of NATO are really protected? By enlarging the alliance to nations we are unwilling to protect, we actually risk shrinking the alliance in the long-run. Sure, the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, UK, Poland and others are almost certainly core nations, but Eastern Europe should be petrified. How important are they? Are Germans willing to die for Slovenians should Putin go too far?

NATO is now an alliance without a cause and as a result is dying a slow death. What is its raison d’être now that the Soviet Union is gone? It has been wandering aimlessly without any core objectives; all the while, European armed forces have decayed and much of the continent is headed for economic and geopolitical irrelevance. Eastern Europe sees Putin for the threat he is, but the rest of Europe and current US leadership doesn’t see Putin as a mortal danger. We are minimizing (if not ridiculing) his aggressiveness as a result. We do so at our own peril.

Fracturing NATO and cracking the façade of a united Europe would be a dramatic diplomatic coup and undermine the security order of the world. Action in Estonia, if not responded to, would render NATO impotent and show the US, not only unwilling to enforce red lines, but unwilling to defend allies. That could have cascading ramifications across Eastern Europe and Asia where American allies like the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea face an increasingly adversarial and expansionist China. If they question U.S. commitment, we risk capitulations that could up-end the balance of power in that region.

This is what at stake. We are not on the precipice of a Turkey-Russia war (in all likelihood), but we face something equally dangerous. Putin is pushing around the edges of NATO to test how united we really are, and if we actually will honor our commitments. Proving that Article 5 is really more bark than bite for non-core nations could unravel the US-security compact that has kept the world safe, and we in its center, in favor of a world where the Russia-China-Iran axis gains strength and US reliability is questioned. The seeds have been sown for a second Cold War, if it has not already begun.

In response to the Turkish air invasion, we must make crystal clear that NATO support cannot be questioned. We have increased our military presence in the Baltics a bit, but NATO needs to move beyond a token presence. Announcing further deployments to Estonia and the Baltics in the wake of the Turkey incident would be a clear signal to Putin that he should not test NATO resolve. Simultaneously, we should commit to build the cancelled-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, for which the Poles have clamored. This would apply a real cost to Putin’s actions. If you mess with a NATO country, it must be clear, we will work against your strategic objectives (dominion over Eastern Europe) and redouble commitment to member nations. Putin’s goal here is not to intimidate Turkey; it is to prepare for a grand pivot to Europe. Accordingly, NATO must pre-emptively harden its European positions.  Whether he is actually willing to call NATO’s bluff in the Baltics is uncertain, but we should pro-actively make clear NATO commitments aren’t a bluff to ward off any potential Russian intervention.

With the rise of ISIS, it should be Eastern Europe in a panic. Putin has built leverage over Europe in Syria and is now testing NATO. We must stand firm and signal our commitment to all member nations. Putin, like any thinking person, can see that NATO is divided with many members likely lacking the will to risk war with him over smaller, newer members. Destroying the illusion of NATO joint security and unwavering US commitment to its treaties would be the greatest political coup since Nixon opened relations with China. That is why we must come out now, in the wake of Turkey, and dispel these concerns, affirm all NATO nations stand firm, increase our presence in the Baltics to comfort these nations, and build the begged-for missile defense shield. Maintaining the balance of power not just in Europe but also in Asia requires this reaction and a steadfast commitment to all allies, big and small.

NATO is being tested in a way it hasn’t since the Cold War ended. We must prove it is an organization that has not outlived its usefulness. To do otherwise would undermine US leadership and the quarter-century of great power peace and prosperity it has bought us.

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Post Paris: Ashamed of our President

NB:

In the days following the heartbreaking, cold-blooded terror attacks in Paris, I have opted not to post anything in this forum because my thoughts have been very harsh (I feared overly so). In times of strong emotion, one can say something they later regret, and I did not want to fall into this trap, stretch my arguments, or offer commentary I would later wish I hadn’t. Instead, I have pored over my words to be as precise as possible and ruminated over my thoughts so that I could articulate exactly as I feel without writing anything regrettable. I am saying this upfront because what follows is (for me at least) a very strongly-worded condemnation of not only our President’s policies but of our President himself as well. Personal attacks are quickly tiresome and rarely justified, and I attempt to avoid them. However after several days of thought, I have come to a clear conclusion: President Obama’s policies are making us less safe, likely because he has succumbed to delusion over fact, and he is undermining our moral authority on the world stage, which is the gravest of offensives. I am ashamed of our President, words I have never previously uttered—these words still feel foreign to me. Below are my views on these two points (the first is policy-driven, the second point houses my more severe criticisms for those who prefer to skip ahead); I hope you consider reading this worth your while, regardless of whether you agree with my conclusions.

  1. President Obama is in a State of Delusion

Friday marked a clear turning point in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). First, it bombed a Russian airliner, then it perpetrated a massive suicide attack outside Beirut, and it culminated with the devastating, extremely well-planned, coordinated attack in Paris Friday night (additionally, on Tuesday, Germany was forced to cancel a soccer match and concert in Hannover due to “concrete evidence” of an impending attack). ISIS has morphed from a powerful conventional ground force into a terrorist organization with al-Qaeda-like capacity to launch terrorist attacks in the Western world. This is a deeply disturbing development that makes ISIS a clear and present danger to the United States and our European allies.

We can engage in counterfactuals all day to assign the blame of ISIS’s rise. Many on the Left say if Bush hadn’t invaded Iraq, ISIS would not be here, and there is some truth in that point (not that Saddam was a saint). On the right, we can point to the fact Obama pigheadedly refused to negotiate a status of force agreement to ensure a stable transition because he wanted to win the political points associated with a rapid withdrawal. Fair-minded individuals can see that a lot of people share the blame for the conditions that allowed ISIS to form. However, the blame clearly shifts to Obama as the question turns to gains ISIS has made in terms of its capabilities and territory, taking control of half of Syria and Iraq, a landmass larger than at least 13 states.

Yet while speaking at the G-20 summit on Monday (after the Paris attacks), President Obama reiterated, “We haven’t underestimated their abilities.” Well, I hate to see how dangerous ISIS could be if we had underestimated them. While being dismissed as a JV-team, ISIS was racking up conquests in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul while we seemingly assumed they had the staying power of the pet rock. Yet, here we are 18+ months later, ISIS has barely lost territory, likely has tens of million (probably north of $100 million) in the bank, and has developed the ability to launch outward attacks of terror. We are left with two possibilities: the President is a bald-faced liar, pretending his strategy is working to avoid losing political standing, or alternatively, he is in a state of delusion. Neither option is a flattering one.

Considering the Administration is doctoring its own intelligence reports to better fit their narrative, reality be damned, I find myself in the delusion camp. A further sign of delusion is that the Administration seems hell-bent on continuing with the same, failing strategy (if Obama were lying to the public, I like to think he would change things behind the scenes). Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, promises a mere “intensification” of the current strategy, comments Obama has since echoed. However, the underlying strategy is misguided.

Here is what Obama said hours before the Paris attacks: “Well, no, I don’t think they’re gaining strength. What is true is that from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.” It is truly stunning how badly Obama could misread ISIS to think we had contained them. Even if, simply for the sake of argument, we concede that ISIS has been territorially contained, that is not success—it is an undeniable failure. Iraq has been ravaged, and what remains is quickly descending into an Iranian-proxy state. Similarly, Assad is merely a puppet for Iran and Russia. The status quo makes it easier for Iran, with Russia by its side, to become the regional hegemon, controlling the capitals of Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. That tilts the balance of power in the region decisively against us, and nuclear deal or not, it is impossible to label a Russia-Iran axis as friendly to democracy or our interests (I’ve written about this very issue weeks ago).

By definition, a policy of containment cedes its current territory to ISIS. In this territory, ISIS can train and build the capacity to launch outward attacks, for which it has just proven a stunning proficiency. Was the policy of “containing” al-Qaeda to Afghanistan particularly wise in the 1990s? Obviously, not. Controlling territory gave it free rein to plan and execute the 9/11 attack. Should it surprise anyone that giving ISIS the same set-up allowed it to execute attacks of its own? All the while, ISIS has built cash reserves, trained a revolving door of foreign fighters who have returned home to the West, and entrenched itself in its territory, ensuring removal will be costlier and bloodier than necessary. The policy of containment has been disastrous at every level. Obama has allowed Iran to gain influence, Assad to hang on, and ISIS to develop al-Qaeda-like capacity.

Not since Richard Nixon thought he could survive Watergate, has a President been so detached from reality. Nixon’s delusions put the nation in a constitutional crisis, and Obama’s threaten a security crisis. This crisis is even more acute for Europe, which has faced a tsunami of migrants entering without any vetting. Plus, its Schengen area policy of open borders has allowed these migrants to travel to any member state with minimal if any tracking, making it impossible for any government to know who is in their country at any given time. Each European nation is only as safe as the nation with the weakest borders, in this case Greece (austerity to deal with its budget debacle has crippled its ability to police borders and hold migrants). This migrant crisis, coupled with returned foreign fighters, exacerbates Europe’s security situation. Amazingly even though his own FBI director has expressed concerns about our vetting, Obama wants to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees and has suggested anyone who opposes him is a bigot (I would note the presumed head of Senate Democrats, Chuck Schumer, happens to have reservations about the current system). Obama has avoided policy debate and simply attacked the character of those who oppose him on this issue. The rational decision is to suspend the program for 3 months, ensure all vetting is done to acceptable standards, and then if concerns are dealt with, reopen the program.

For 18 months, we have watched ISIS grow like a cancer as Obama underestimated them and then employed a wrongheaded policy of containment. He touts launching 8,000 airstrikes, though this amounts to ~20/day, less than 1/5 the pace of Bill Clinton’s strikes in Serbia. On Monday, Obama had the gall to say, “We have been fully aware of the potential capabilities of them carrying out a terrorist attack. That’s precisely why we have been mounting a very aggressive strategy to go after them.” That is indisputably untrue; our bombing campaign has been anything but aggressive. These strikes barely manage to slow the advance of ISIS but do nothing to roll back its capacity. Our President’s policies are that of an inveterate invertebrate. He fecklessly dithers, leaving us in a situation where there are no easy options. In 2013, we should have enforced a no-fly zone and aided the Free Syrian Army in their fight against Assad, but Obama backed away from his own red-line.

Now, Russia is propping up Assad, moderate rebels have been squeezed from both sides, and ISIS has a serious foothold. A full no-fly zone risks confrontation with Putin. Considering how Obama backed down to Assad and Putin in Crimea, it is hard to see Putin taking our no-fly zone seriously. The temptation to partner with him is tantalizing, put aside the Assad question now, deal with ISIS, and then work on Assad. Aligning with Putin is like sleeping with the devil, fun at first not so good in the long run. If we deal with ISIS together, there is no pressure for Putin to support removing Assad (except to replace him with another crony—any crony will do!).

Instead, the US must significantly intensify our airstrikes, encourage rather than discourage France to invoke Article 5 of NATO, and build a Western coalition to systematically roll back ISIS. This means directly arming the Kurds, whom we have long-standing relations with and who are adept fighters. US troops embedded with the Kurds and FSA, Gulf partners providing ground troops, and NATO air-strikes and some ground troops can decisively roll back ISIS. Simultaneously, we need to create safe zones where refugees can go in Syria and Jordan, financed by the West, to keep refugees from flooding Europe. We, both Western and Muslim states, then need to maintain a presence to help new governments in Iraq and Syria build the institutions and structural strength to endure. This is a battle among civilizations, and we need to treat it as such.

The idea containment would ever work is a pure fallacy, perpetrated by an administration unable to deal with ISIS and unwilling to admit its mistakes. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Obama continues to delude himself into believing the strategy is working. If we continue on this course, the threat ISIS poses to the Western world will only grow. I fear a world in which Paris is not an anomaly but the beginning of a long string of attacks, apparently we barely avoided another in Germany Tuesday. Simply containing ISIS allows them more time and space to develop their capabilities and export there terror. We need to get tough now; to do otherwise is to gamble the security of our homeland and that of our allies.

  1. President Obama Has Shamed this Nation

This (briefer) section pivots away from my policy critique and focuses instead on the character of our President. While I have never been a fan of his simplistic and pessimistic policy platform, I have long considered President Obama to be a good man and have defended him to fellow conservatives as such (at the expense of being dubbed a RINO occasionally). As his administration progressed, this has been a tougher argument to make, particularly after he blatantly lied about his healthcare plan (you can keep your doctor…). However, there is a difference between telling a lie and shaming the nation, or at the very least, there needs to be a very high standard when it comes to saying someone has shamed the nation (Nixon is the lone President whom I had previously put in this basket in the post-WWII era). Monday that changed.

While on the Sunday shows, Rhodes suggested Paris was a “setback.” People do misspeak or overstate their case, particularly on talk shows, and I aim to give all the benefit of the doubt, despite the callousness of that remark. Then on Monday, we were presented with dueling remarks from French President Hollande and Obama. Hollande powerfully declared to his nation: “France is at war. No barbarians will prevent us from living how we have decided to live. To live fully. Terrorism will never destroy the republic, because the republic will destroy terrorism.” Hollande understands the stakes of this battle. We are dealing with suicidal maniacs who want the world to burn, and we need to pulverize them. Hollande is seizing the gravity of this moment to eradicate a great evil from this earth.

Our President could not match this rhetoric. Instead, Obama doubled down on Rhodes line, saying, “The terrible events in Paris were a terrible and sickening setback.” Setback was not an off-the-cuff remark, it was clearly chosen in advance by our President to describe the Paris attack after being test-run by Rhodes Sunday. Our oldest ally has just suffered its worst terrorist attack since World War II, and that is all Obama has to offer. Families were destroyed, innocent civilians murdered, and children’s lives and sense of safety have been forever destroyed. This is not a mere setback; Friday we saw the face of evil. Even Orwellian newspeak cannot contemplate such emotionless verbiage.

Our President takes no issue calling his political opponents immature racists who are helping ISIS recruit (he did so earlier this evening!), yet he has no moral outrage to show psychopathic terrorists? Meanwhile, his Secretary of State suggests we shouldn’t be so shocked about the Charlie Hebdo shooting from earlier this year as though you make yourself a target merely by engaging in political discourse. That is anathema to the founding principles of this country, and the Western world.

Our President demeans fellow republicans with alarming ease but is incapable of calling out true evil on the world stage. Is he afraid of offending ISIS? There is no rationale for this cowardice. America is the world’s moral beacon, and as such, we have a responsibility, no a duty, to stand with allies and call out evil, yet we paper over a vicious action that has rocked France to its very core. In doing so, Obama is abdicating the moral authority of his office, and undermining our position in the world. We are seeing a stunning, virtually unprecedented, absence of leadership. How can we rally the world against evil when our President is all but unwilling to acknowledge its existence?

Obama’s remarks in the aftermath of Paris are unfathomable and show a moral compass gone haywire. The slaughtering of over 100 civilians is not a setback; that language is disgraceful, particularly when contrasted with the language he uses to demonize republicans. I shudder at a President who shrugs off allied civilian mass murders. We have a responsibility to lead the world, and Obama is throwing away our moral authority, which is particularly astonishing since he went on an apology tour over our supposed sins to restore it.

This is disgusting. Decency and a love for humanity demands anger, pain, and condemnation when discussing Paris or any terrorist attack. Hollande understands this; virtually all civilized people do. Yet, our President is so busy playing politics, he can see it as a mere setback in his strategy. Tell that to the families of the murdered.

President Obama has been disgraceful in the aftermath of these attacks, and I feel ashamed he is our representative to the world.